By Francis Bret Harte, 1871
On the northern shore of San Francisco Bay, California, where the Golden Gate broadens into the Pacific, stands a prominent bluff that affords shelter from the prevailing winds to a semicircular bay on the east. Around this bay, the hillside is bleak and barren, but there are traces of former habitation in a weather-beaten cabin and deserted corral. It is said that these were initially built by an enterprising squatter, who abandoned them for some unaccountable reason shortly after. The “jumper” who succeeded him disappeared just as mysteriously one day. The third tenant, who seemed to be a man of sanguine, hopeful temperament, divided the property into building lots, staked off the hillside, and projected the map of a new metropolis.
Failing, however, to convince the citizens of San Francisco that they had mistaken the site of their city, he presently fell into dissipation and despair. He was frequently observed haunting the narrow strip of beach at low tide or perched upon the cliff at high water.
In the latter position, a sheep-tender found him cold and pulseless one day with a map of his property in his hand and his face turned toward the distant sea.
Perhaps these circumstances gave the locality its infelicitous reputation. Vague rumors were bruited of a supernatural influence that had been exercised on the tenants. Strange stories were circulated of the origin of the sinister title by which the promontory was known. By some, it was believed to be haunted by the spirit of one of Sir Francis Drake’s sailors, who had deserted his ship in consequence of stories told by the Indians of gold discoveries but who had perished by starvation on the rocks. A vaquero who had once passed a night in the ruined cabin related how a strangely dressed and emaciated figure had knocked at the door at midnight and demanded food. Other story-tellers of more historical accuracy roundly asserted that Sir Francis himself had been little better than a pirate and had chosen this spot to conceal quantities of ill-gotten booty taken from neutral bottoms and had protected his hiding place by the orthodox means of hellish incantation and diabolic agencies. On moonlight nights, a shadowy ship was sometimes seen standing off and on, or when fogs encompassed sea and shore, the noise of oars rising and falling in their rowlocks could be heard muffled and indistinctly during the night.
Whatever foundation there might have been for these stories, it was inevitable that a more weird and desolate-looking spot could not have been selected for their theatre. High barren hills, filled with dark canyons, cast their gaunt shadows on the tide. During most of the day, the wind, which blew furiously and incessantly, seemed possessed with a spirit of fierce disquiet and unrest. Toward nightfall, the sea fog crept with a soft step through the portals of the Golden Gate or stole in noiseless marches down the hillside, tenderly soothing the wind-buffeted face of the cliff until sea and sky were hidden together. At such times, the populous city beyond and the nearer settlement seemed removed to an infinite distance. An immeasurable loneliness settled upon the cliff. The creaking of a windlass, or the monotonous chant of sailors on some unseen, outlying ship, came faint and far and full of mystic suggestion.
About a year ago, a well-to-do middle-aged broker of San Francisco found himself the sole occupant of a plunger at nightfall, encompassed in a dense fog and drifting toward the Golden Gate. This unexpected termination of an afternoon’s sail was partly attributable to his want of nautical skill and partly to the effect of his usually sanguine nature. Having given up the guidance of his boat to the wind and tide, he had trusted too implicitly for that reaction, which his business experience assured him was sure to occur in all affairs, aquatic and terrestrial. “The tide will turn soon,” said the broker confidently, “or something will happen.”
He had scarcely settled himself back again in the stern sheets before the bow of the plunger, obeying some mysterious impulse, veered slowly around, and a dark object loomed before him. A gentle eddy carried the boat farther inshore until, at last, it was completely embayed under the lee of a rocky point now faintly discernible through the fog. He looked around him in the vain hope of recognizing some familiar headland. The tops of the high hills which rose on either side were hidden in the fog. As the boat swung around, he succeeded in fastening a line to the rocks and sat down again with renewed confidence and security.
It was freezing. The insidious fog penetrated his tightly buttoned coat and set his teeth to chattering despite the aid he sometimes drew from a pocket flask. His clothes were wet, and the stern sheets were covered with spray. The comforts of fire and shelter continually rose before his fancy as he gazed wistfully at the rocks. In sheer despair, he finally drew the boat toward the most accessible part of the cliff and attempted to ascend. This was less difficult than it appeared, and in a few moments, he had gained the hill above. A dark object at a little distance attracted his attention, and on approaching, it proved to be a deserted cabin.
The story goes on to say that, having built a roaring fire of stakes pulled from the adjoining corral with a flask of excellent brandy, he managed to pass the early part of the evening with comparative comfort. The cabin had no door, and the windows were square openings, which freely admitted the searching fog. But despite these discomforts,–being a man of cheerful, sanguine temperament–he amused himself by poking the fire and watching the ruddy glow that the flames threw on the fog from the open door. A great weariness overcame him in this innocent occupation, and he fell asleep.
He was awakened at midnight by a loud “halloo,” which seemed to proceed directly from the sea. Thinking it might be the cry of some boatman lost in the fog, he walked to the edge of the cliff, but the thick veil that covered sea and land rendered all objects at the distance of a few feet indistinguishable. He heard, however, the regular strokes of oars rising and falling on the water. The halloo was repeated. He was clearing his throat to reply when, to his surprise, an answer came apparently from the very cabin he had quitted. Hastily retracing his steps, he was the more amazed, on reaching the open door, to find a stranger warming himself by the fire. Stepping back far enough to conceal his own person, he took a good look at the intruder.
He was a man of about 40 with a cadaverous face. But the oddity of his dress attracted the broker’s attention more than his lugubrious physiognomy. His legs were hidden in enormously wide trousers descending to his knee, where they met long sealskin boots. A pea-jacket with exaggerated cuffs, almost as large as the breeches, covered his chest, and around his waist, a monstrous belt, with a buckle like a dentist’s sign, supported two trumpet-mouthed pistols and a curved hanger. He wore a long braid, which went halfway down his back. As the firelight fell on his ingenuous countenance, the broker observed with some concern that this queue was formed entirely of a kind of tobacco known as pigtail or twist. Its effect, the broker remarked, was much heightened when, in a moment of thoughtful abstraction, the apparition bit off a portion of it and rolled it as a quid into the cavernous recesses of his jaws.
Meanwhile, the nearer splash of oars indicated the approach of the unseen boat. The broker had barely time to conceal himself behind the cabin before several uncouth-looking figures clambered up the hill toward the ruined rendezvous.
They were dressed like the previous comer, who, as they passed through the open door, exchanged greetings with each in antique phraseology, bestowing at the same time some familiar nickname. Flash-in-the-Pan, Spitter-of-Frogs, Malmsey Butt, Latheyard Will, and Mark-the-Pinker, were the few sobriquets the broker remembered. He could not tell whether these titles were given to express some peculiarity of their owner, for a silence followed as they slowly ranged themselves upon the cabin floor in a semicircle around their cadaverous host.
At length, Malmsey Butt, a spherical-bodied man-of-war’s-man with a rubicund nose, got on his legs somewhat unsteadily and addressed himself to the company. They had met that evening, said the speaker, by a time-honored custom. This was to relieve that one of their number who for fifty years had kept watch and ward over the locality where sure treasures had been buried. At this point, the broker pricked up his ears. “If so be, camarados and brothers all,” he continued, “ye are ready to receive the report of our excellent and well-beloved brother, Master Slit-the-Weazand, touching his search for this treasure, why, marry, to ‘t and begin.”
A murmur of assent went around the circle as the speaker resumed his seat. Master Slit-the-Weazand slowly opened his lantern jaws and began. He had spent much of his time determining the exact location of the treasure. He believed — nay, he could state positively — that its position was now settled. It was true he had done some trifling little business outside. Modesty forbade his mentioning the particulars, but he would state that of the three tenants who had occupied the cabin during the past ten years, none were now alive.
Mark-the-Pinker next arose. Before proceeding to business, he had a duty to perform in the sacred name of friendship. It ill became him to pass a eulogy upon the qualities of the speaker who had preceded him, for he had known him from “boyhood’s hour.” Side by side, they had wrought together in the Spanish war. He challenged his equal for a neat hand with a Toledo, while how nobly and beautifully he had won his present title of Slit-the-Weazand all could testify.
The speaker, with some show of emotion, asked to be pardoned if he dwelt too freely on passages of their early companionship; he then detailed, with a delicate touch of humor, his comrade’s peculiar manner of slitting the ears and lips of a refractory Jew who had been captured in one of their previous voyages. He would not weary the patience of his hearers but would briefly propose that the report of Slit-the-Weazand be accepted and that the company’s thanks be tendered him.
A breaker of strong spirits was then rolled into the hut, and cans of grog were circulated freely from hand to hand. The health of Slit-the-Weazand was proposed in a neat speech by Mark-the-Pinker and responded to by the former gentleman in a manner that drew tears to the eyes of all present. To the broker, in his concealment, this momentary diversion from the real business of the meeting occasioned much anxiety. As yet, nothing had been said to indicate the exact locality of the treasure they had mysteriously alluded to. Fear restrained him from open inquiry, and curiosity kept him from making good his escape during the orgy which followed. But his situation was beginning to become critical. Flash-in-the-Pan, who seemed to have been a man of choleric humor, taking fire during some hotly contested argument, discharged both his pistols at the breast of his opponent. The balls passed through on each side immediately below his armpits, making a clean hole through which the horrified broker could see the firelight behind him. The wounded man, without betraying any concern, excited the laughter of the company by jocosely putting his arms akimbo and inserting his thumbs into the orifices of the wounds as if they had been armholes. This having, in a measure, restored good humor, the party joined hands and formed a circle preparatory to dancing. Some monotonous stanzas commenced the dance hummed in a very high key by one of the party, the rest joining in the following chorus, which seemed to present a familiar sound to the broker’s ear:
“Her Majesty is very sick,
Lord Essex hath the measles,
Our Admiral hath licked ye French—
Poppe! saith ye weasel!”
At the regular recurrence of the last line, the party discharged their loaded pistols in all directions, rendering the position of the unhappy broker one of extreme peril and perplexity.
When the tumult had partially subsided, Flash-in-the-Pan called the meeting to order, and most of the revelers returned to their places, Malmsey Butt, however, insisting upon another chorus and singing at the top of his voice:
“I am ycleped J. Keyser–I was born at Spring, hys Garden, My father toe make me ane clerke erst did essaye, But a fico for ye offis–I spurn ye losels offeire; For I fain would be ane butcher by’r ladykin alwaye.”
Flash-in-the-Pan drew a pistol from his belt and, bidding someone gag Malmsey Butt with the stock of it, proceeded to read from a portentous roll of parchment that he held in his hand. It was a semi-legal document, clothed in the quaint phraseology of a bygone period. After a long preamble, asserting their loyalty as lieges of her most bountiful Majesty and Sovereign Lady the Queen, the document declared that they then and there took possession of the promontory and all the treasure-trove therein contained, formerly buried by Her Majesty’s most faithful and devoted Admiral Sir Francis Drake, with the right to search, discover, and appropriate the same; and for the purpose thereof they did then and there form a guild or corporation to discover so, search for, and disclose said treasures, and by virtue thereof they solemnly subscribed their names. But at this moment, the reading of the parchment was arrested by an exclamation from the assembly, and the broker was seen frantically struggling at the door in the strong arms of Mark-the-Pinker.
“Let me go!” he cried as he desperately attempted to reach the side of Master Flash-in-the-Pan. “Let me go! I tell you, gentlemen, that document is not worth the parchment it is written on. The State’s laws, the country’s customs, and the mining ordinances are all against it. By all that’s sacred, don’t throw away such a capital investment through ignorance and informality. Let me go! I assure you, gentlemen, professionally, that you have a big thing, remarkably big thing, and even if I ain’t in it, I’m not going to see it fall through. Don’t, for God’s sake, gentlemen, I implore you, put your names to such a ridiculous paper. There isn’t a notary.”
He ceased. The figures around him, which were beginning to grow fainter and more indistinct as he went on, swam before his eyes flickered, reappeared again, and finally went out. He rubbed his eyes and gazed around him. The cabin was deserted. On the hearth, the red embers of his fire were fading away in the bright beams of the morning sun that looked aslant through the open window. He ran out to the cliff. The sturdy sea breeze fanned his feverish cheeks and tossed the white caps of waves that beat in pleasant music on the beach below. A stately merchantman with snowy canvas was entering the Gate. The voices of sailors came cheerfully from a bark at anchor below the point. The muskets of the sentries gleamed brightly on Alcatraz, and the rolling of drums swelled on the breeze. Farther on, the hills of San Francisco, cottage-crowned and bordered with wharves and warehouses, met his longing eye.
Such is the legend of Devil’s Point. Any objections to its reliability may be met with the statement that the broker who tells the story has since incorporated a company under the title of “Flash-in-the-Pan Gold and Silver Treasure Mining Company” and that its shares are already held at a stiff figure. A copy of the original document is said to be on record in the company’s office, and on any clear day, the locality of the claim may be distinctly seen from the hills of San Francisco.
About the Author: Francis Bret Harte (1836-1902) was an author and poet best remembered for his accounts of pioneering life in California. Originally from New York, he moved to California in 1853, working several jobs, including mining, teaching, messenger, and journalist. During his lifetime, he published several articles for magazines and several books, including The Luck of the Roaring Camp and Other Tales, in 1871, from which this article was excerpted. This tale, however, is not verbatim, as minor editing has occurred for clarity.